The Rose Buds of the Bible
I once heard the book of Genesis described like a flower. I can’t recall where I first heard this metaphor, but the more I read the Bible (and the more I tinker in my own garden), the more it strikes me as true. I’m writing this during a North Carolina spring. That means that in addition to the highlighter-yellow tree pollen that fills the air, my world is currently filled with hanging wisteria vines, bright blooming azaleas, and (very soon) rows and rows of roses.
We all delight in the bloom of the flower. But what fascinates me lately is the moment just before the magnificent bloom—when all of that beauty is packed into a tiny bud. The potential is completely there, in that bud, just waiting to unfold and dazzle the world.
The book of Genesis is a lot like that. The first few chapters contain, in “bud” form, every theme that flowers later in the book—themes that cast seeds out throughout the rest of the Bible, multiplying into a garden of divine revelation.
But it all begins with a bud. Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Genesis 3. The rose buds of the Bible.
Textbooks, Stories, and Poems
In my corner of the Christian world, one of the most overlooked themes of Genesis 1–3 is that of beauty. Reflecting on these chapters, a great deal of ink has been spilled on the themes of human nature, sin, salvation, the problem of evil, the age of the earth, the roles of men and women. Beauty often takes a back seat.
It’s not that we despise beauty generally. We appreciate a stunning poem or an engaging story. We recognize the majesty of an early-morning sunrise—if we can get up for it. And we fill our homes with eye-catching items. In our everyday lives, we know that beauty matters. But we don’t expect it as often from the Bible. The Bible, we think, goes in the category of Very Important Book. We have to take it seriously. It’s essentially God’s textbook. So we treat this Very Important Book like a textbook. It has all the answers, so we had better dig in to get all the answers right.
And the more we try to unearth the right answers from this textbook, the more we struggle with the un-textbook-like parts of the Bible. It turns out there are a lot of them. Most of the Bible, we learn rather quickly, is either a story or a poem. We can learn a lot from stories and poems—but only if we read them as stories and poems. Approaching a poem with a textbook mindset is a bit like assessing a rose bush by tallying up the number of petals and thorns. There might be scientific reasons to count up the parts of the rose. But if that’s your whole experience with roses, I’d say you’re rather missing the point.
The Bible is absolutely a Very Important Book. And, like a textbook, it really does provide us with all the answers we need to life. But it’s not a textbook, not a reference book to be mined for information. The Bible is the true story of the whole world. It is meant to be studied, yes—but not studied like a series of math formulas. It’s meant to be savored, enjoyed, experienced.
Which brings us back to Genesis 1.
God, the World’s First Artist
Stories and poems. That’s most of the Bible. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the first chunk of Bible we encounter—Genesis 1–3—is a bit of both.
Genesis 1 recounts the creation of the world, an account that ends up being referenced countless times throughout the Old Testament. Many of us can quote the first line: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And most of us know the general framework from there: For six days, God makes everything out of nothing. Sun, moon, and stars; oceans (and the fish in them); the sky (and the birds in them); the land (and the animals on it). And then, at the end of it all, Adam and Eve.
What’s intriguing about this whole account is how intentionally poetic and beautiful it is. We aren’t given the timeline of creation how a scientist or a historian would portray it. We are given the world’s first days, painted with words, by a poet.
Really, this shouldn’t surprise us. Because what Genesis 1 describes is, itself, poetic and beautiful. Even before Adam and Eve arrive, the world is filled with diversity and delight. Not only does God make for Adam and Eve a landing pad. He prepares for them an extravagantly beautiful home.
We see a hint of that extravagance in Genesis 2:10–14, an otherwise odd passage about rivers and gemstone deposits. In this passage, the Garden of Eden is given specific boundaries, some of which are known today. If we were to place Eden on a map, it wouldn’t be like any tiny garden we’ve experienced. It would be more like Yellowstone National Park. Sprawling, enormous, rich, and wild.
And remember, all of this for just two people. Why go so big on beauty?
In a word, generosity.
There Is Dignity Behind Our Delight
Think about this: God didn’t have to make the world delightful. He could have simply made it useful. But we live in a world where delightful and useful often coincide. When we meet our basic needs, it feels good.
For instance, we need food to live. God could have given us tasteless pills to supply us with energy. Pop a “sustenance vitamin” in the morning and you’re set for the day. Instead, our bodies are fueled by sushi and pizza and tacos. How generous of God to make tacos not only functional, but delicious! Useful and delightful. Necessary and beautiful.
Because of God’s generosity, the world is filled with delights far exceeding what any of us need. Nobody needs pink and purple sunsets to survive. But God generously gives them to us, day after day after day. He’s like a loving parent on Christmas morning, pouring so many presents on his kids that they can’t even keep up.
It gets better.
Recall what sets Adam and Eve apart from the rest of God’s creation. It’s not merely that God made them last. He made them different. Only Adam and Eve were made “in God’s image,” which is to say, like God. And only Adam and Eve were given a commission: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion …” (Genesis 1:28a). In other words, God was calling them to do what he was doing—to be little-c creators and cultivators, reflecting the big-C Creator and Cultivator.
When we cultivate beauty for those around us, we are living out God’s generosity. God lavishes beauty on us. We honor him by savoring it. Then we follow him by doing the same for others.
You may do this in ways that might impress thousands of people … or that may delight just one. You cultivate beauty by dressing to the nines for a wedding. Or tending the garden in front of your house. Or by making your favorite meal for the family next door (instead of just a meal). Or by founding your new business on integrity and aesthetic excellence. Or by pausing to enjoy a sunset, and calling others to notice it, too. Or by poring over the words of your Sunday School lesson—making them not only true, but delightful.
Or in one of thousands of other ways.
Beautiful, Good, True
So: Cultivate beauty in your life and the lives of those around you, without apology or reservation. But never forget that beauty cannot stand alone. We are meant to cultivate what is beautiful and what is true.
For centuries, philosophers have pondered the relationship between beauty and virtue. Many medieval monks, for instance, argued that beauty was not merely a supplement to truth or goodness, but was itself related to truth and goodness. Truth, beauty, and goodness belonged together.
Unsurprisingly, poets have made the same connection. Consider Emily Dickinson, who in her typically morbid and delightful way, equates beauty with truth (I realize poems can be tough, but take a breath; you can do this):
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats was even more direct:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
They’ve got a point. Read through the pages of Scripture and watch the rose bud of Genesis 1–3 bloom. Beauty continues to grow and develop. But beauty grows most fruitfully when it grows in the soil of goodness and truth. The “beautiful” one in Isaiah’s prophecy is not a person of striking appearance, but someone who brings good news (Isaiah 52:7). The beauty of God is not seen most dramatically in the aesthetic of his creation, but in his perfect character: His glory is made known by his goodness and faithfulness. God has, as we might say, a beautiful soul.
All of this culminates in the most paradoxically beautiful person who ever walked the earth—Jesus Christ. In all four of the Gospels (his biographies), not one mention is given of his appearance. Here was God in the flesh, the walking embodiment of the beauty that breathed out Genesis 1. Never has there been a more beautiful being. And yet, one of the New Testament authors’ favorite quotations about Jesus comes from Isaiah 53:
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows; …
and with his wounds we are healed.
–Isaiah 53:2–4, 5
The beauty in a sunset has the capacity to make me pause. The beauty of a single rose can stop me in my tracks. But words fail me when I try to fathom the depth of that simple phrase: “with his wounds we are healed.” Never has the world known greater love than this. How gloriously true! How tremendously good! How unspeakably beautiful!